A Helping Hand

Students and Prisons

Daniel J. Kiley '85 recalls a strange conversation he had last semester in which a woman vociferously defended her former practice of selling drugs to children.

The woman said she would kill anyone who tried to sell drugs to her own children, but argued that if she hadn't, someone else would have.

The woman is an inmate at Framingham Woman's Penitentiary. Kiley is one of 40 Harvard students who regularly make trips to counsel inmates there.

On his next visit to the prison, Kiley found out from her fellow inmates that the woman had finally agreed she was wrong.

Since the 1950's, the prisons committee of Phillips Brooks House (PBH) has been sending student volunteers to area prisons. The program has since expanded to cover four correctional institutions and one half-way house, which helps former inmates adjust to the outside world.

The program is designed to combat recidivism, or repeat criminals. Almost three quarters of those who ever go to jail in the United States end up behind bars more than once in their lives. The phenomenon is most clearly associated with a person's inability to adjust to the outside world. Many recidivists have poor educational backgrounds and are often unable to find a job.

Demed their own place in society, they are more readily inclined to become involved in crime. Because convicted criminals have made that decision once before, crime becomes easier to commit, explains Leslie H. Moeller '84-85.

The prisons committee seeks to provide those inmates who would like to break out of a life patterned by crime with an opportunity to improve their education and to feel that they too have a place in the outside world.

Because PBH makes a policy of conducting its correctional programs separately, the 40 students on the prisons committee do not rotaic among the four prisons. Groups of volunteers generally stay with one prison for an entire semester. At the Framingham Women's Prison, the volunteers go out just to talk with the inmates or organize activities for them. They have debated gun control, simulated the popular game, Family Feud, and made Valentine's Day cards.

"Some good does come out of the discussions for them; occasionally we have results that are as directly encouraging as this one," says Kiley. "One of the main things for us is learning about the attitudes of the inmates. They are disproportionately minorities and very disproportionately poor. They have a tremendous suspicion of the government and of society as a whole, which is something entirely unfamiliar to us. For the inmates it's really, a question of we versus they." Kiley explains.

The programs at the other correctional facilities place greater emphasis on actual tutoring. "The major goal is education," says Moeller, who founded and directed the program at Massachusetts Correction Institution (MCI) at Concord.

Nevertheless, she adds, giving the inmates a greater feeling of worth remains the ultimate end of the program. "It's really a form of consciousness raising. Just meeting with people from the outside world and talking about their problems makes them feel more like real people."

PBH was the first collegiate organization to send volunteers to tutor at mental institutions in the 1950's. The program was so successful that PBH began to look for ways of expanding it, eventually settling on correctional facilities, where volunteers could do similar work.

Last year, Moeller decided to expand the program to include the MCI Concord.

"He called at the right time. We have a full educational facility here, but the inmates who work in our furniture shop couldn't attend classes during the day anymore. They needed to meet deadline, but we had no evening programs. The volunteers from PBH fit the bill nicely," says Daniel J. Farnoff, principal of the institution's school.